Wow, that’s a hell of a title for a sci-fi movie, isn’t it? Alas, the film, one of the strangest sci-fi films you might ever see, is in no way equal to the title, which is a terrible shame, because for the first fifteen-twenty minutes I was loving it, all the dodgy acting and dodgy sets and dodgy visual effects of it. Sure, part of the appeal, such as it is, of watching old low-budget genre films are those cheesy models and the comical amusement regards how they tried to depict aliens. Sometimes that can be enough.
The Terrornauts was a very low-rent supporting feature from Milton Subotsky’s Amicus films, a production company much akin to Hammer and very successful at horror anthology pictures in the 1960s and 1970s which made brief forays into science fiction (note the 1960s Dr Who movies starring Peter Cushing).
A small team of British scientists are running a project titled ‘Star Talk’, which uses a Radio Telescope to listen in on the cosmos and try to pick up a signal of alien origin. Needless to say the Star Talk team -project lead Dr. Joe Burke (Simon Oates), electronics expert Ben Keller (Stanley Meadows) and office manager Sandy Lund (Zena Marshall)- are ridiculed by their peers, particularly Site Manager, Dr. Henry Shore (Max Adrian) who believes their fool project an unworthy waste of radio telescope time that would be beter utilised on, er, his own science research. To that end, Shore plots to close down their funding, and the barbed arguments between Burke and Shore are possibly the highlight of the whole film. It reminded me very much of the lofty themes of the film Contact and surprisingly seemed quite serious and plausible, but the film can’t sustain this and quickly descends into farce and then, er, plunges further still. I just have to turn your attention to the image below to get what I’m talking about. Just look at that for a moment.
The thing that, inevitably, really, kept on coming to mind whilst watching The Terrornauts was that the film was released in 1967, and that 2001: A Space Odyssey followed just the following year, utterly changing everything for the genre. Watching films like The Terrornauts really lays bare just how extraordinary the achievement that 2001 was- it simply cannot be overstated. Its easy to look back on 2001 today and forget the sheer leap in quality and skill evident in the film, but watching films like Amicus’ offering makes it absolutley clear.
Now of course there is a huge disparity of budget and ambition, of the calibre of cast and crew between films like 2001 and The Terrornauts, and any comparison is wholly unfair, and its true, in many ways 2001 changed very little. It wasn’t until Star Wars arrived in 1977 that sci-fi films really became popular in mainstream culture and deemed worthy of ambitious blockbuster budgets, as most genre offering remained low budget and lowbrow even in the wake of 2001 (one could ruefully argue that Star Wars itself is pretty lowbrow too, of course and that much of its success was purely in its execution).
But The Terrornauts is pretty much below lowbrow; astonishingly so infact. As soon as I saw Patricia Hayes playing the facility tea lady Mrs. Jones my suspicions were realised, but when Charles Hawtrey (of Carry On fame) turned up playing Joshua Yellowlees, an auditor investigating the Star Talk team’s accounts, I knew something was up as the film lurched towards the totally bizarre and then took a sharp left into space madness.
The team do indeed pick up a signal, track it down as coming from the asteroid belt infact, and after nipping to the High Street to buy suitable equipment (to which Charles Hawtrey shrieks with consternation at a piece of tech with a £75 invoice) they send a signal back. This signal reaches a huge alien installation on one of the asteroids which promptly sends a spaceship by return post which quickly reaches Earth, floats above the radio telescope installation and with some kind of tractor beam picks up the research building in which the Star Talk boffins work, along with Mrs Jones and Mr Yellowlee of course, and rushes back to the alien base. The Earthlings are then tested to see if they are intelligent enough to operate what turns out to be a deserted base maintained by a robot, and play a game of real-life Taito Space Invaders in battle against an evil Space Armada. In between all this excitement two of the team visit an alien planet inhabited by, er, green men (where Sandy is almost sacrificed to Space Gods Unknown) and the mystery of Joe’s childhood visions that set him on his career path of contacting aliens becomes plain. Eat your heart out, Jodie Foster, this guy has pathos.
The Terrornauts is one of those films that really needs to be seen to be believed, after which finds one grasping at a reappraisal of every genre film previously seen. The old adage, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ actually does have some merit here with this one. Its mad, its inept, its mind boggling, frankly. But it absolutely needs to be seen on a double-bill with 2001: A Space Odyssey, if I could only dare.
The Terrornauts currently appears on Talking Pictures schedules and is available on digital rental and DVD.